Gaming board hears from public on SugarHouse expansion plan

SugarHouse officials Tuesday urged the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to approve their modified expansion plans, which include a new “better-designed, dedicated Asian gaming area,” a 10,000- to 15,000 square foot space for events from concerts to weddings, poker tables and a parking garage that’s seven-stories tall rather than 10.

“We also believe this plan allows for better future expansion,” said CEO Greg Carlin, who noted the project would create 1,600 construction jobs, and additional full-time jobs as well.

The PGCB already approved one set of expansion plans for the 1001 N. Delaware Ave. casino in 2009. Their petition before the gaming board calls for modifications to that plan.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved the latest expansion proposal in 2011, clearing the way for the casino to seek building permits, provided the PGCB says yes, said Terry McKenna, development manager.  Read about the PCPC decision and learn about discussions between the city and SugarHouse regarding parking garage height here.  And see previous coverage on the documents submitted to the gaming board here.

The proposed, larger casino would be finished about two years after the board approved the plan, McKenna said. Construction itself would take about 16 months. The PGCB will likely consider the modified plan at its May 15 board meeting, said PGCB spokesman Doug Harbach.

Carlin, architect Ian Cope and General Manager Wendy Hamilton said the proposed changes are tied to the legalization of table games, negotiations with the city regarding the parking garage, and customer feedback. Some of them are physically possible because SugarHouse acquired an additional five acres of land in 2009.

Hamilton said there is demand for event space taking advantage of the river views. “We already get requests for everything from weddings to corporate events,” she said. Cope said it would be 12,000-square feet of flexible ballroom space, where tournaments, big promotions and sit-down events could be held, and there would also be a large, outdoor deck facing the river.

The expansion plan will cost about $155 million, Carlin said, bringing the total project to $530 million. “We are currently working to secure financing,” he said. “We expect to close by the end of the month.”

According to documents filed with the gaming board, SugarHouse hopes to secure $410 million to pay for this project and also refinance previous debt.

The SugarHouse team -and later their supporters – also spoke of “best-places to work” awards, SugarHouse’s building of their segment of the trail of the Central Delaware River waterfront trail, and donations and other contributions the casino has made to the community.

There was no discussion of how the expansion plans would impact future SugarHouse revenue.

“I don’t believe we’ve made those public,” Carlin said when asked after the hearing about the potential impact on the bottom line. “We’re in a quiet period right now for our financing so we can’t really talk about our projections.”

When asked what the separate Asian gaming area would be, Carlin said it would include games like baccarat and others “that appeal to our Asian customers.” SugarHouse has some Asian table games among its offerings now, according to the website: Asia Poker, Pai Gow Poker and Pai Gow Tiles, and several kinds of baccarat.

“It’s games they like to play,” he said. “It’s very common in Atlantic City and other casinos. Parx (in Bensalem, Bucks County) has an Asian gaming area.”

Hamilton added, “It’s an important part of our business.”

Philadelphia’s Asian community has previously protested what it saw as attempts to lure Asians to casinos, but no one spoke about this specific issue Tuesday.

The Constitution Center room where the hearing was held was full, with about 150 people. A large percentage of the seats seemed to be filled with current SugarHouse employees, who often cheered enthusiastically. Some told personal stories of how much they love their jobs or have risen through the ranks, or how their bosses were understanding and supportive when they had family matters to take care of. Hamilton had previously noted several Best Place to Work awards the casino has been awarded, and also that SugarHouse made the list of the city’s top companies for charitable donations.

Most of the two-dozen or so people who spoke to the gaming board about SugarHouse’s proposed plans urged the board to approve them.

First District Councilman Mark Squilla spoke of the tax revenues the city has received, and the employment of residents. The potential for both could be fully realized with the expansion, he said.

Through written statements, City Council President Darrell Clarke and State Sen. Lawrence Farnese expressed similar sentiments.

“Since opening in 2010, SugarHouse has kept its promise to be a good neighbor,” Clarke wrote. He also praised SugarHouse for building a workforce that is more than 50 percent Philadelphia residents and more than 40 percent each women and minorities.

SugarHouse funds the Penn Treaty Special Services district with $500,000 annually, an amount that would increase to $1 million each year. Timothy Breslin, president of the Penn Treaty Special Services District, and Maggie O’Brien, president of Fishtown Action community group, said the money has built kids’ sports fields, supplied computers to local schools, and bought a new roof and air conditioning for a veteran’s organization.

FACT members have always “believed SugarHouse Casino would be an asset to neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “I’m happy to say we were right,” she said. “We look forward to creation of more jobs for our residents and more funding for our neighborhood.”

Long-time Mummer William Burke and PHL17 representative Vincent Giannini said funding from SugarHouse has kept the parade alive and on TV.

Two of the about twenty people who testified asked the board to vote against the revised expansion plans, and to measure the benefits others touted against costs that were not discussed by the other speakers.

One, local attorney Paul Boni, a board member of the national organization Stop Predatory Gambling, said his concerns center around three issues: Gambling addiction, crime and potential environmental problems.

Boni said that SugarHouse keeps much data on its customers, and the gaming board should examine some of it before making a decision. The PGCB states it wants to minimize problem gambling, Boni said. “So what percentage of their revenue comes from problem gamblers? If you do not know the answer, then you should not approve the expansion.”

While Squilla said the increase in crime around the casino is negligible, Boni said the state police made 161 arrests at or near the casino in 2012, and Philadelphia police responded to 944 calls. “These are costs I urge you to look into,” he said.

Boni said his environmental concerns stem from an environmental claim the casino recently settled with the U.S. Attorney’s office by paying $650,000.

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